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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

Illuminating the Path to Nation-building: The Legacy of Mainstream and Nikhilda

Thursday 3 January 2013

by O.P. Sabherwal

The rise of Mainstream synchronised with a period of building Indian nationhood, when both the economy and its political propulsion treaded an unchartered path posing baffling questions.

Those were the later decades of the twentieth century. The Mainstream was an unorthodox offshoot of the Left plank of Indian journalism, its creator and builder, Shri Nikhil Chakravartty, a charismatic personage and communicator with exceptional abilities. Rightly has he been described in later years as the doyen of Indian journalism. This obtained recognition in Nikhil Chakravartty being elevated as the first chief of Prasar Bharati.

I had the opportunity of learning from Nikhilda—as he was described by most people—and of working with him for over two decades at the commence-ment of my transition from a student and youth leader to the field of analytical journalism. That was a period of immense yearning in the media for news in depth, and for news analysis, to find out the motivating forces that set India’s developmental path. Nikhilda responded by boldly plunging into this quest.

He founded the first Indian news service that adopted news in depth and news analysis as its agenda—India Press Agency (IPA). The founding and build-up of IPA was followed by the creation of Mainstream, to which task Nikhilda worked with painstaking effort. In the process, he dedicated the journal to the nation—a viable instrument for nation-building, with distinct features, and treading its own path in Indian journalism.

With unalloyed patriotism as its base, Mainstream dealt with issues and key developments with objectivity, striving to bring out all facets and viewpoints in the political-economic process. One of the levers deployed by Mainstream in covering and delineating events was to draw in academics and specialists, and not just leaders of political parties, whose participation was of course availed of.

In this endeavour to understand events in their fullness and throw the floodlight on the course taken by Indian nationhood, Shri Chakravartty led from the front. His illuminating writings in Mainstream were carried in what was termed as the Editor’s Notebook, which week after week published the key issues of India’s growth and rise in the service of the Indian people—as a great developing nation, with a place of pride in the comity of nations.

Nikhilda’s clear-headed and lucid writings won esteem and acclaim far and wide, from men of knowledge, academics, and—I dare say—political leaders of diverse views. Indeed, Nikhilda’s Notebook was the fulcrum round which Mainstream evolved and rose to great prominence in the field of Indian journalism.

Through a vicissitude of decades, wading through the Nehru years, the 1965 and Bangladesh wars, years of terrorism in Punjab, ideological tussles in India and abroad, economic planning and economic reforms, Mainstream put its shoulder to the wheel. The developmental agenda was not enough. Stark poverty, tribal exploitation, from which arose the mood of the youth to revolt—the Naxalbari phenomenon, present-day Maoism—drew Mainstream’s special attention. As is widely known, the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi was a breach; and the Mainstream, with Nikhilda at the helm, played a glorious role in combating this black event. For a brief period, Mainstream had to be suspended, and when it resumed, its role in the service of the nation was even brighter.

I can do no better than recall a few landmark events into which I was drawn by Nikhilda, thanks to his special care for me, so that I am able to give a worthy output even in my early days of journalism. One of these was covering the liberation of Bangladesh, into which I was pushed in the aftermath of the Pakistan Army’s surrender. I was among the first of Indian journalists to reach Dacca post-liberation, but the unique thing was that I reached the Bangladesh capital by road entering Bangladesh from the Tripura border. Journeying by road right up to Dacca! Because of Nikhilda’s connections, I was tagged on to a group of Bangladeshi freedom fighters who assembled at Agartala for entering the newly freed Bangladesh at the Tripura border, for journeying to Dacca by road.

It was an eventful and revealing journey, an adventure I might say, because on way there were broken bridges and road breaches. The journey was sometimes by bus, occasionally by cart and boats crossing rivers despite broken bridges. The affection of the people on the way was really heart-warming: they made the journey arrangements lasting three days, fed the group of which I was a part (the only non-Bengali) and put us up in their homes. The return, after a week’s stay in Dacca, was by a Army helicopter offered by the Indian Army, since no international air carrier functioned as a result of the Dacca airport being severely damaged.
The contribution of my Bangladesh visit was a two-part article, “Road to Dacca”, and I was immensely pleased because of the fulsome praise it received from Nikhilda. Because of my limited knowledge of Bangladesh, it contained only a sketchy depiction of the Bangladesh scene, but it was good enough for the day, since there was immense desire here to receive first-hand knowledge of Bangladesh. I received kudos when the article was published in Mainstream and subsequently put out by IPA.

Later, Mainstream published Nikhilda’s own depiction of the Bangladesh scene when he was able to visit Dacca. Nikhilda’s series on Bangladesh was put out as “Dacca Jottings”. The series was the first to carry an exhaustive interview with Mujibur Rehman and the President of Bangladesh; also the judiciary notables and political rank-and-file. “Dacca Jottings” was an outstanding contribution on Bangladesh by Mainstream to the then available very limited knowledge on the Bangladesh scenario.

Years earlier, Nikhilda assigned to me another sensitive task—covering the India-Pakistan peace talks at Tashkent after the 1965 war. Amidst the pick of Indian journalists covering the India-Pakistan peace talks between Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and General Ayub Khan, including Kuldip Nayar, Inder Malhotra, Krishan Bhatia et al., I was able to land one of the biggest scoops of the day, which however was rendered infructuous because of the sudden demise of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri just when he had achieved a successful and satisfactory conclusion of the talks. Prime Minister Shastri’s sudden demise cast a gloom and overshadowed much other reportage.

This is how it went. The Indian delegation headed by Prime Minister Shastri included Foreign Secretary C.S. Jha and the then Indian Ambassador to the Soviet Union, T.N. Kaul. Briefings to the accompanying Indian journalists was given at two levels, the Prime Minister himself giving the main briefing at the end of the day, and Ambassador Kaul providing important details of developments. Foreign Secretary C.S. Jha was available to Indian journalists at even the oddest time—even at mid-night and after.

The Prime Minister’s briefing was strictly off the record, since he took the Indian journalists group into full confidence with regard to India’s line in the talks and our estimation of Pakistan’s stand in the talks. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister snapped his press briefing for a day because one of the Indian journalists—a leading journalist—violated the norms by publishing large part of Prime Minister Shastri’s confidential, off the record, briefing. The Prime Minister was greatly annoyed; he, however, resumed briefing after a day’s gap. That was on the last day when he was able to provide the final Tashkent agreement and the full details of India’s stand.

There was a dramatic interlude. Just on the pen-ultimate night, the BBC put out a report that the talks had virtually collapsed and now the two sides—Indian and Pakistani—were working out a face-saving formula. In fact this was not so, and I was able to glean this by checking with Foreign Secretary C.S. Jha late past mid-night. He indicated that in fact the talks were nearing conclusion and, as it generally happens, the last stretch is faced with tough bargaining on important details. A couple of hours later, I was able to file a major scoop to Nikhilda for our two media. The scoop: the India-Pakistan talks had reached successful conclusion, barring small details, which the Indian and Pakistani heads were to clear up in a few hours. I was able to get the scoop by virtue of a link-up with an East Pakistani journalist with whom I had arrived at a mutual exchange accord. He confided to me the news, a clue to which C.S. Jha had already provided.

Unfortunately, malicious news was circulated in India that there were doubts that injurious ingredients had been mixed in the Prime Minister’s food which resulted in his sudden demise. The fact is that Shastri was a serious heart patient who could not bear with the strain—first of the Indo-Pak war, and finally of the tenuous peace talks.

I might record another important aspect of Nikhilda: his insistence on holding on to one’s viewpoint on important issues even if this was contrary to Nikhilda’s own thinking. This I discovered in the course of working with him on two critical times—one, after the imposition of the Emergency, and second, during the last virulent phase of terrorism in Punjab when many felt that all was lost.
At the commencement of the Emergency, I was misled to think that it was a momentary imposition, and I proclaimed the view; I wrongly thought it was in national interest. Nikhilda staunchly opposed the imposition of the Emergency and saw it as a serious blow to Indian democracy. But he maintained that I am entitled to my views until I am proved wrong.

In later years, I developed differences with Nikhilda on terrorism in Punjab. I maintained that the menace of terrorism had not changed the basic groundswell in Punjab, which was still one of a healthy relationship among the large mass of Punjabi Sikhs and Hindus. Nikhilda differed but he allowed me to write on the basis of my perception. I was assigned to undertake a fact-finding report and publish my findings in IPA. My article “Punjab at Crossroads” published in the Hindustan Times and in IPA after obtaining Nikhilda’s approval—despite his disagreeing with my assessment—finally settled issues. The terrorists in Punjab were blown off once Chief Minister Beant Singh snatched the gun from their hands—Punjab was freed from the terrorists’ clutches.

The author, a veteran journalist, used to edit India Press Agency for long years. He was also associated with Mainstream where he occasionally contributed articles and commentaries.

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